Giving Candidates Their Say - Free
Would donated prime time on the major networks help reengage skeptical voters?
Imagine you're just about to settle in for an evening of "Seinfeld" after a hard day's work. But instead of Jerry making jokes, President Clinton suddenly appears with an impassioned, two-minute plea for more education funding.Skip to next paragraph
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Do you flip to another channel, or watch?
The question is at the heart of a debate over whether the three major broadcast networks should offer presidential candidates a few minutes of free air time in the month leading up to the presidential elections. Supporters are betting you'll stay tuned, and in doing so, transform the American political debate. Critics are confident you'll grab for the remote.
The idea of offering candidates free air time is not new. Every other major industrial democracy in the world already gives political candidates free access to the airwaves. Dozens of campaign-finance reform proposals over the years have included it. But like many other well-intentioned efforts to drain the cynicism, mean-spirited ads, and huge amounts of cash from America's political system, reform has been stymied by a Congress too dependent on the status quo to change it.
Enter Paul Taylor. The former Washington Post political reporter quit his job last year to begin a crusade to get the networks to offer up a few free minutes of air time. He says this simple change can succeed where other efforts have failed.
"I think it has the potential to change the language of politics, to change the habits of journalism, and to change the cynicism of the political culture," says Mr. Taylor, admitting to a bit of hyperbole for dramatic effect.
His zeal has turned a pie-in-the-sky idea into a serious proposal with the backing of such notables as former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, actor Christopher Reeve, and Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey.
TAYLOR calls his movement the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition. In a full-page ad in The New York Times in mid-April, dozens of leaders in politics, business, and entertainment signed an open letter to ABC, CBS, and NBC urging them to give candidates a direct line to the largest audiences in America.
"You go into the heart of prime time, where the voters and, indeed, the nonvoters are," Taylor says. "And do it in a format that forces the candidates to be on the screen the whole time, so if they want to attack their opponents ... the candidate himself will have to get his fingernails dirty."
Taylor says that face-to-face confrontation with the American public will raise the debate from the current sound-bite-driven volleys of "attack ads" to a level where the candidates have to tell viewers in a straightforward manner exactly what they would do for the country.
"Currently, we have what I call the 'pro-wrestling mode' of fighting, which is all about fakery and artifice, rather than the 'boxing mode' of fighting, which is at least two combatants in a ring honestly slugging it out," Taylor says.
Skeptics are far less sanguine. They say the few free minutes would simply give candidates another venue to spin misleading half-truths. That, in turn, would give the public another reason to tune out of the political debate.
That's a primary concern of the three major networks, which would have to sacrifice advertising revenues and precious programming minutes to provide the time. The networks also say that their news and political programs already offer the candidates plenty of opportunities to be seen and heard. So far, all three have opposed the idea, although executives at CBS and NBC say the idea is under consideration.